In the Marx Brothers 1933 comedy Duck Soup, the small, bankrupt nation of Freedonia is threatened by its neighbour Sylvania. A rich widower, Mrs. Teasdale, refuses to finance the nations’ Treasury unless the cabinet installs her friend, Rufus T. Firefly, as President.

Rufus, played by Groucho Marx, turns out to be an agent for the Eureka Ammunition Company. “Think of it, gentlemen, an ammunition salesman dictating the policies of our peace-loving country!” cries a Freedonian cabinet member. Unperturbed, Firefly rhymes off the offenses he will prosecute as an authoritarian leader: smoking, chewing gum, and telling dirty jokes.

After the capture of a spy from Sylvania, Firefly whips the palace into a patriotic frenzy. “We’re going to war, we’re going to war!” the Freedonians roar in a song and dance number that finishes as a lily-white minstrel show: “They got guns / We got guns, All God’s chillun got guns! / I’m gonna walk all over the battlefield, / ‘Cause all God’s chillun got guns!” Newspaper headlines spin into view: “ARMIES MOBILIZE AS WAR CLOUDS GATHER!” and  “AMNESIA HASTENS PREPARATIONS!”

It’s worth noting that American colonists once proposed “Fredonia” as an alternative designation for the United States, and that no less than 16 towns across the continental U.S. bear the name. So for the purposes of this column it may not be a huge thematic leap from Freedonia vs. Sylvania to Fredonia vs. Syria.

Kerrydronesept13U.S. secretary of state John Kerry recently said the deaths in Damascus had the “signature of sarin,” inspiring Jon Stewart to flog  “Signature of Sarin” perfume on the Daily Show. Tens of thousands of Syrians have already been killed. “So why now? The red line is apparently: You can’t use chemicals to kill your own people. You have to do it organically,” Stewart concluded.

Associated Press correspondent Dale Gavlak recently reported that rebels were likely responsible for the recent deaths in a Damascus suburb from chemical weapons, not the Syrian government of Bahar Al-Assad. Saudi intelligence allegedly supplied the weapons to Jabhat al-Nusra, a group affiliated with al-Qaida (the latter are apparently on NATO’s side for the Syrian insurgency; it’s all very confusing without a deep state spreadsheet). Bravak’s report, which didn’t fit the White House/mainstream news narrative, quickly spiralled down the Memory Hole.

I seem to recall a previous dustup over weapons of mass destruction, involving another mustached dictator. Not Hitler, but close. Coalition forces bombed his country either into the Stone Age or the waiting arms of Halliburton. Or was that Afghanistan? Libya, perhaps? It’s hard to keep the “rogue state” hit lists from the past 10 years straight; all I know is that the mustached guy’s weapons of mass destruction turned out to be as fictional as the Cheshire Cat’s smile, and hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed and injured in the wake of their supposed pursuit.

Hang on, I now remember former U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell testifying before the American Congress in 2003 about Iraqi WMDs. He said there was intelligence on mobile labs transporting chemical weapons, which he referred to as “Winnebagos of Death” with a straight face. Although an official British investigation concluded later they were probably weather balloon platforms, Powell’s Powerpoint tapdance was all Congress needed to sign off on another make-work program for the military-industrial complex. It’s hard to believe the Kerry/Obama routine isn’t a return engagement.

In the words of the baseball player Yogi Berra, “it’s like déjà vu all over again” — perhaps a Beltway outbreak of nostalgia for the Bush years, cheered on by AIPAC lobbyists? Kerry says Assad must produce his chemical weapons to avoid an air strike. Putin says, hey Assad, why don’t you allow international weapons inspections? Assad says, OK, fine.  Whoa, says Kerry, Assad can’t be trusted. Obama goes on TV and says lofty things about democracy and danger. Hail Freedonia! The global community watches, gobsmacked, at a farcical song and dance number worthy of Rufus T. Firefly.

“History repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce,” insisted the least funny Marx brother, Karl. Yet polls indicate most Americans are dead set against another misadventure in the Mideast, and the British parliament has already voted to keep out of the Duck Soup. Wise move; this time it looks like a nuke-friendly double feature, with a one-minute-to-midnight screening of Dr. Strangelove.

The Vancouver Courier, Sept. 13



Image“We should seriously consider lining our wallets with tinfoil,” I said to my partner the other day, while discussing how the growing use of RFID cards is making it easier for crooks and corporations to remotely hack personal information from wallets. I immediately burst out laughing at my own comment. Here I was proposing that we shield our personal information with the substance most often linked in popular culture to paranoid fears (A Google search of “tinfoil” and “conspiracy theories” nets 201,000 hits).

Forget tinfoil hats; you may need tinfoil pants soon. A company called Renew is under fire for hacking data from over four million accounts of pedestrians in the streets of London, via “smart bins” that look like a cross between recycling receptacles and the Daleks from Dr. Who. These devices have been “secretly harvesting personal data and are now under investigation, in possible violation of European Union law,” according to a recent story in Metro.

The smart bins suck unique electronic signatures from passing smartphones, tracking the location, time and even the direction the owner is heading. At least the City of London had the good sense to order the company to stop the snooping — although Britain is just a dry run. The Renew bins are set for further trials in North America and Asia.  

The Metro news item didn’t identify Renew’s clients as public or private. In any case, information siphoning/stifling trends in England and the U.S. are truly living up to that dog-eared adjective “Orwellian.” Last week, two security experts from Government Communication Headquarters oversaw the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian’s basement, in an effort to quash the paper’s newsgathering on the Snowden leaks case. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger wrote a scathing piece online in response, insisting the paper will continue to report on the story outside of London.

“If the people do not trust the government, it does not trust them. If the government does not trust the people, they do not trust it. This merry-go-round is almost a perpetual motion machine,” wrote American philosopher Robert Anton Wilson in his 1996 book, Everything is Under Control: Conspiracies, Cults and Cover-ups.

“Hence, the people grow more hostile and ‘paranoid’ about the government, and the government, noting this, grows more nervous about ‘militias’ or ‘cults’ or ‘hippies’ or ‘extremists’ or some other anti-governmental minority that might live anywhere and might secretly plot anything. It therefore hires more eavesdroppers, installs more wiretaps, and spies on the people with greater vigor. This Strange Loop quickly becomes a Vicious Circle, since governmental paranoia about people and people’s paranoia about government each reinforce the other,” wrote Wilson. (During the FBI’s ’60s/’70s-era COINTEL spy program, the Los Angeles field office reported that a rock concert by The Monkees featured left-wing “subliminal messages.”)

Wilson lived long enough to see the post-9/11 bonanza for the private sector, with the outsourcing of classified  work to hundreds of security/surveillance firms in the U.S. alone. Across the Anglo-American world, the line between marketing, data-mining, and intelligence gathering has blurred like a watercolour painting left in the rain. There is transparency, but only in one direction — from the business/government elite down to irradiated citizen/consumers, tracked like tagged wildlife to “protect their freedoms” while their particulars are sold to the highest bidder.

The ultimate irony is that one of the signature fears among paranoid schizophrenics is that they are being monitored or controlled by invisible waves of electromagnetic radiation. It’s not like the clinically insane had the jump on the rest of us in anticipating postmillennial surveillance trends. It’s more like our technocrats have made madness the new normal.

So how will this mutual paranoia between the governors and the governed play out? Wilson insisted it would continue “until the system collapses, until the funding runs out, or until, due to Divine Intervention, sanity reappears. In the interlude… both the government and the governed….becomes more frightened of the other.”

Recipe for a culture of institutionalized suspicion: take a heap of shadowy, globe-girdling corporations and throw alphabet agencies like the NSA and GCHQ into the mix. My partner didn’t laugh at my tinfoil comment as I did at. Instead she calmly responded that a local drugstore sells metallic holders for passports. “There’s already a big market out there for RFID-blocking wallets,” she added.

The Vancouver Courier, Aug. 28


During the making of the 1980 film, The Return of the Blues Brothers, it wasn’t just the budget that exploded in size. In the early stages of production a mysterious caller told the film’s producer, Bob Weiss, to be at home later in the evening. Weiss received a thick manuscript wrapped in the cover of a phone book. The 324-page document, almost three times the size of regular screenplay, bore the writing credit “By Scriptatron GL-9000.”

No such screenwriting machine ever existed, of course. Back in the early ’80s, the idea of automated authoring was as comically improbable as anything else in the Blues Brothers’ screenplay, conceived by meatbots Dan Aykroyd and John Landis.

Even though the film wildly overshot its budget and schedule (thanks largely to actor John Belushi’s fondness for Bolivian marching powder), it remained somewhat watchable. But if you’ve been wondering lately why today’s Hollywood blockbusters have a been-there, seen-that feel, it’s because they are literally formulaic. These megaplex spectacles might as well be written by, for, and about robots.

Some observers blame one source in particular: screenwriter Blake Snyder, who penned the 1992 film Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot! and the 2005 how-to book Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. Although his Stallone vehicle stiffed with the critics, and Snyder himself passed away in 2009, the book survived him as a must-have addition to scriptwriter shelves.

The title comes from the Snyder’s idea that a film’s protagonist needs to do something to win the audience’s sympathy in the first 10 minutes of a film, like save a cat. The plot should follow 15 touchstone “beats,” or events, determined right down to the page number of a script.  

Peter Suderman, film critic for The Washington Times, claims in an article for Slate that a surprising number of Hollywood films tightly follow the book’s precepts, including such recent stinkers as The Great and Mighty Oz, Jack the Giant Slayer and Fast Furious 6. Not to mention the charming Oscar-winning fairy tale, Silver Linings Playbook.

When a superhero fights one villain only to discover he is actually fighting another, this accords with one of Snyder’s signature beats, which occurs around the midpoint of the film. He also emphasizes male heroes over female heroines — not surprising since the largest demographic for Hollywood action films is represented by young men.

Save the Cat! software and apps are now available for wannabe Tarantinos. In fact, computer-aided screenwriting has a long pedigree. A writer friend paid $400 in 1994 for software that performed like Snyder’s paperback bible, she tells me. Her screenwriting teacher at UBC “brought the guy in who sold StoryPro” after telling the class the program was “fantastic.”

The software mentoring doesn’t necessarily stop at the screenwriter. Epagogix, an entertainment consulting firm, offers studios a robot’s-eye view of pitched screenplays. The company analysts tabulate the plot points and scores them according to predetermined values. A computer algorithm then breaks down the scores to determine the box office value of a projected film, with a 10 percent margin of error.

Does it work? “Richard Furlin, a movie financier with MovieArb, says he’ll back a film only if it’s been vetted by Epagogix,” notes Marketplace.org. Yet even though the company name conjures up some kind of futuristic superglue, many filmgoers are failing to go with the program. A number of recent blockbusters-to-be, such as The Lone Ranger and After Earth, failed to return the expected numbers, leaving the film’s backers and bean counters scratching their heads.

Is this software-channelled creativity turning Tinseltown into an assembly line for blockbuster bombs, just as “high-frequency trading” by computer algorithms has turned Wall Street into a cyber-casino threatened by unpredictable “flash crashes’? Not quite yet, it seems. According to Variety magazine, the 2013 summer box office is set to break a record, in spite of a string of formulaic flops.

At least there’s still television — which may be the five least likely words I’ve ever strung together in this space. Dramatic series like Breaking Bad and Mad Men far outshine the juvenilia regurgitated by today’s popcorn-computational complex. With their unpredictable plots, complex characters and penetrating dialogue, these cable productions seem somehow more…human.


 The Vancouver Courier, Aug. 26


Among some tribal societies, a person’s True Name must not be altered or profaned. And in many of the world’s mythologies, to name is to create (“In the beginning was the Word”). So by inference, to rename is to damage or destroy.

Consider the fate of Chinese Communist Party secretary Li Hsueh-feng. When he fell out of favour during China’s Cultural Revolution, his superiors punished him with a new name. “The slight modification of a character, while preserving its sound, has long been a medium of official language insults. This is especially true of a language where a single syllable can have more than 40 different meanings, depending on how it is written,” observed language guru Charles Berlitz. Poor Li woke up one morning to discover his name had been changed from “Snowy Mountaintop” to the equivalent of “Bloody Weirdo.”
Another target was Fu Chu’ung Pi, a former commander in the Peking garrison. He found his name altered from “Magnificent Precious Stone” to “Corpse of Miserable Worm.”

A voluntary name change is a different story. It can represent an opportunity to cast off the past and start anew (Paul Hewson became Bono; Stefani Germanotta morphed into Lady Gaga; Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz shed his skin for Jon Stewart). For a large corporations — they’re people too! — the gambit can be a way to ditch a problematic brand identity.
For example, Philip Morris Companies Inc. became Altria Group in 2003, to introduce “clarity” into a company with a history of PR problems involving its flagship product, cancer sticks. Although the company still owns Philip Morris U.S., the term “Altria Group” it’s more likely to conjure a question mark in consumers’ minds than a curlicue of smoke.

Yet for letterhead gymnastics, you can’t beat the security services Academi, formerly known as Xe Services, formerly known as Blackwater. The latter was co-founded in 1997 by former Navy Seal and Christian fundamentalist Erik Prince. In short order Blackwater began behaving like a crusading paramilitary outfit answerable only to Prince’s putative boss — God — and was banned from Iraq after a shootout in the streets of Baghdad in 2007 that resulted in the deaths of 17 Iraqi civilians. The company responded decisively with a remake as Xe Services.

In December 2011, Xe was reinvented as “Academi.” The name, a riff on Plato’s Academy, was meant convey a more “boring” image, according to CEO Ted Wright. (A spot of trouble in Iraq? That was SO two names ago!) Academi is now the largest of the U.S. State Department’s three private security contractors, which suggests there’s no corporate injury so serious that a Band-Aid of a noun can’t mask it.

The Madonna-like reinvention routines extend to a military base in Georgia. “The School of The Americas” at Fort Benning has been slammed by activists as a north-south conduit of human rights abuses, through its training of Latin American security forces. In 2004 its name was changed to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. WHINSEC? Sounds like a software patch to me.

Not all big name changes in business and government are as dubious as those above. The 2013 decision by CEO Thorsten Heins to rename his lesser-recognized Research in Motion (RIM) with the handle of its iconic smartphone, BlackBerry, made sense on paper — even though some tech commentators interpreted the move as a staggering company’s last shot at self-inflation.

Some name change proposals beg the question, why? In spite of four consecutive majority Liberal governments, Premier Christy Clark recently floated the idea of renaming the B.C. Liberal Party with a new, more “inclusive” moniker that won’t be confused with the federal Liberal party. Not that fiddling with terminology is likely to help or hinder the Libs’ performance. Every provincial election since 2001, this scandal-hardened crew sails into a majority by default, courtesy apathetic British Columbians with the attention spans of gerbils on Benzedrine.

If the party’s current name is barely sensible, it’s perfectly consistent with politics in B.C., where 41 per cent of eligible voters went AWOL in 2013. I’m tempted to tag you democratic abstainers as “bloody weirdos” or “miserable worms.”

The Vancouver Courier, Aug. 23


A beachside cabin on the Sunshine Coast with no cable or wifi? Bring it on. There’s nothing like a stretch of electronic austerity to get someone like me back to holiday basics. When my wife and I arrived at the rustic retreat, I collapsed into a deckchair with some light reading left behind by the owners: a July issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.

Who doesn’t love Oprah, who reigned for years as the daytime BFF of homebodies, housewives and shut-ins? Well, call me a curmudgeon on training wheels, but it took only a minute or two for her glossy lifestyle vehicle to wind me up.

“Clearer skin is possible,” reads an ad for Humira, a drug targeting sufferers of psoriasis. A beautiful mother pores over a bedtime story with her beautiful children above the caption: “illustration of 75 per cent clearance at 4 months. Results may vary.” No kidding. A few paragraphs of the five-page ad are devoted to claimed health benefits from Humira, a “medicine that affects your immune system.” The rest is a laundry list of risk factors, common side effects, and corporate legalese.

“Serious infections have happened in people taking Humira. These serious infections include tuberculosis (TB) and infections caused by viruses, fungi or bacteria that have spread through the body. Some people have died from these infections.” Because Humira is a TNF (tumour necrosis factor) blocker, “the chances of getting cancer may increase.” No risk figures are offered.

The drug is often used to treat moderate to severe rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease, but the pitch to psoriasis sufferers suggests a bigger demographic of itchers. Possible side effects include allergic reaction, nervous system problems, or “new heart failure or worsening of heart failure you already have.”

Thanks, but I think I’ll keep the psoriasis.

A few pages away there’s an ad for the antidepressant Abilify. A doleful looking woman sits with a cup of coffee, while a large cartoon capsule pushes halfheartedly against her arm. “My antidepressant worked hard. But sometimes I still struggled with my depression,” reads the caption. Abilify’s risks include “uncontrollable facial or body movements” from tardive dyskinesia (which a more adventurous drug copywriter might describe as “dancing”.)

“Tardive dyskinesia may become permanent and the risk of TD may increase with the length of treatment and the overall dose” of Abilify. Other risks include “decreases in white blood cells (which can be serious) seizures, trouble swallowing, or impairment in judgment or motor skills.” There’s also “risk of suicidal thoughts and actions” for younger users. At least the common side effects — nausea, vomiting, constipation, headache, dizziness, anxiety and insomnia — occurred in less than 10 per cent of adults in clinical trials. Better odds than Russian roulette, in other words.

Does Oprah ever read her own publication? Less than fully relaxed, I tossed her lifestyle rag aside and turned to People to get the latest word on celebrity baby bumps and Kim Kardashian’s Sisyphean struggle with her caboose. Same thing there: a clutch of big pharma ads with “consumer brief summaries” worthy of CSI scripts. I tore out the ads for reference material, and returned to O mag to do the same.

These sorts of ads used to appear only in medical trade journals, but the corporate pill-pushers now pinpoint their targets through popular magazines, in the hope afflicted readers will petition for a prescription from their GPs, who are already under sample-and-brochure bombardment from drug rep formations.

We’ve all seen the TV variant of this form of advertising, where some older couple gambols across a flower-dappled field as a speed-reader voiceover rhymes off the Walking Dead complications and contraindications. But where’s the accountability? Most everyone I know has a story of a friend or relative harmed by physician-assisted screwicide. (My father was seriously damaged by a well-known anti-inflammatory drug, and an ex-girlfriend suffered from the severe side-effects of a dermatologist-prescribed acne cream.)

What will future generations make of today’s out-of-control medical-pharmaceutical-marketing complex, and our complicit healthcare providers? I suspect they will judge medieval apothecaries slightly better, and 19th century snake oil only slightly worse. If past class action suits from drug-damaged consumers are any indication, we’re still medically somewhere between the Dark Ages and the Wild West.

 The Vancouver Courier, Aug. 15